Entities to which International Guarantees Apply

Religionsgemeinschaft der Zeugen Jehovas and Others v Austria, 31 July 2008 [ECtHR]


Case no 40825/98

7.  The first applicant is a religious community established in Austria, and the second to fifth applicants were born in 1927, 1935, 1927 and 1930 respectively and live in Vienna. (...)
56.  The applicants complained that the refusal of the Austrian authorities to grant legal personality to the first applicant by conferring on it the status of a religious society under the Recognition Act violated their right to freedom of religion. They further submitted that the legal personality conferred on the first applicant under the Religious Communities Act was limited and insufficient for the purposes of Article 9 of the Convention. The applicants also relied on Article 11 of the Convention. (...)
60. The Court considers that the above complaints fall to be considered under Article 9 of the Convention, although in interpreting these provisions due regard to Article 11 of the Convention will be had (see Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria, no. 30985/96, §§ 62 and 91, ECHR 2000-XI).
61.  The Court reiterates that, as enshrined in Article 9, freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a “democratic society” within the meaning of the Convention. While religious freedom is primarily a matter of individual conscience, it also implies, inter alia, freedom to “manifest [one’s] religion” alone and in private or in community with others, in public and within the circle of those whose faith one shares. Bearing witness in words and deeds is bound up with the existence of religious convictions (see Kokkinakis v. Greece, judgment of 25 May 1993, Series A no. 260, p. 17, § 31; and Buscarini and Others v. San Marino [GC], no. 24645/94, § 34, ECHR 1999-I). Since religious communities traditionally exist in the form of organised structures, Article 9 must be interpreted in the light of Article 11 of the Convention, which safeguards associative life against unjustified State interference. Indeed, the autonomous existence of religious communities is indispensable for pluralism in a democratic society and is, thus, an issue at the very heart of the protection which Article 9 affords (see Hasan and Chaush, cited above, § 62).
62. The Court reiterates further that the ability to establish a legal entity in order to act collectively in a field of mutual interest is one of the most important aspects of freedom of association, without which that right would be deprived of any meaning. The Court has consistently held the view that a refusal by the domestic authorities to grant legal-entity status to an association of individuals amounts to an interference with the applicants’ exercise of their right to freedom of association (see Gorzelik and Others v. Poland [GC], no. 44158/98, § 52 et passim, 17 February 2004, and Sidiropoulos and Others v. Greece, judgment of 10 July 1998, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1998‑IV, § 31 et passim). Where the organisation of the religious community was at issue, a refusal to recognise it has also been found to constitute interference with the applicants’ right to freedom of religion under Article 9 of the Convention (see Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia and Others v. Moldova, no 45701/99, § 105, ECHR 2001-XII).
63. In addition, one of the means of exercising the right to manifest one’s religion, especially for a religious community, in its collective dimension, is the possibility of ensuring judicial protection of the community, its members and its assets, so that Article 9 must be seen not only in the light of Article 11, but also in the light of Article 6 (see, mutatis mutandis, Sidiropoulos and Others v. Greece, judgment of 10 July 1998, Reports 1998-IV, p. 1614, § 40; Canea Catholic Church v. Greece, judgment of 16 December 1997, Reports 1997-VIII, p. 2857, §§ 33 and 40-41; and Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia and Others, cited above, § 118).

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